Let me tell you about the time I got on an elevator and someone took a cheap shot at me.
As the doors closed and my hazy reflection appeared in their silver skin, I could see my orange baseball cap and make out the white blob — a tiger paw — on its crown. The elevator hummed upward and a rather large man to my right acknowledged my cap. He made his move.
Clemson, huh? he said. My son was at that Orange Bowl.
(I was in Charleston, West Virginia, on this day, but even if I’d been elsewhere, I’d still have known what he was referencing — West Virginia University’s 70-33 dismantling of my Tigers on Jan. 4, 2012.)
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He was in the (marching) band, the man said. You could see him on TV hugging all the players after the win.
(Your win, I thought. I was cordial — “Good stuff” is my standard reply — and tried not to roll my eyes. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me that summer I spent working in the Mountain State — more than three years after the blowout.)
I bet you remember that, he said.
I did. I do.
I remember a backfield pass to a Mountaineer running back who was tackled — behind the line of scrimmage — but somehow never hit the ground and scampered for a first down. A near-the-goal-line run by Clemson that looked like a go-ahead touchdown and felt like a touchdown and, in fact, resulted in a touchdown ... for West Virginia, after a strip-and-score by its defense. A time in the game when Clemson was still in it.
And then I remember the rest of those 35 Mountaineer second-quarter points.
After which I recall very little, because I remember turning off the TV.
I’m sure a lot of Ohio State fans felt like doing the same on New Year’s Eve, when their Buckeyes had none of the luck, or the points, in a 31-0 loss to Clemson.
We have a lot of Buckeyes (and Big Ten Conference) fans here in the Lowcountry; my thoughts were with them in the wake of the game. And my thoughts were with my best friend Abe, a proud Ohio State (and University of Georgia) alum who lived in Columbus, Ohio, for several years.
Even though we both hail from the mountains of western North Carolina (“God’s country,” I hear it’s called) we should, given our affiliations — in addition to a Clemson diploma, I’ve got another from Mizzou — give each other hell.
And that might be because we value friendship as much as football. (Most days.)
Maybe we’re just sensitive souls who know the pain of being cornered by a braggart. (Abe wasn’t with me in that West Virginia elevator, but you can bet I channeled his patience and charm as those Orange-Bowl body blows kept coming.)
We understand braggin’ rights are part of being a fan, much as we understand expressions of “fandom” can be all things admirable (a conversion van retrofitted with orange and purple carpet); laughable (call-ins on Paul Finebaum’s radio show); and ugly (bottles and punches thrown, trees poisoned).
I don’t think you’d consider us high-minded, self-righteous bores. I hope not. (The last time we got together for a game, at his home in West Ashley, we smoked a pork butt, had some beers and moved fallen branches out of his backyard. By tying rope around the hundreds-pound limbs and sprint-dragging them to the curb. Of course we did.)
I’d say we’re a lot of fun, and we’ve had a lot of fun together getting to know each other’s teams.
I visited Abe when he lived in Columbus. I held down a bar stool at nearby Bob’s Bar (“The Cultural Hub of the Midwest!”). I sat in Ohio Stadium in the spitting snow for “The Game” — Ohio State versus Michigan.
The Buckeyes won.
They’ll win games next year, a lot, likely.
And someday they’ll beat Clemson.
And I’ll hate that.
But I’ll know how much it means to them.
And I’ll give my good buddy a congratulatory call — that is, assuming we’re not watching the game together — knowing he won’t gloat.
Because gloating invites bad karma.
Abe knows that. I know that.
So I knew not to brag on New Year’s Eve. Nick Saban and Alabama loom in the national title game. And I’m not trying to conjure up any of that old — man, I hate the word I’m about to use — “Clemsoning.”
On the elevator that day, as I weathered another reminder of one of my Tigers’ greatest examples of “Clemsoning,” I thought about all the nice West Virginians I’d met — the folks who didn’t give me a hard time, or at least did so with a little love.
The man in the elevator was not one of them.
He had a bit of venom in his voice and a snarky smile on his face. I’m sure of this. And I found it ironic that he worked at the hotel where I was paying good money to stay.
The elevator reached my floor.
I exited through the doors.
And I wished I’d thought of some witty, cutting retort.
At least I didn’t congratulate him on the win.